SAN FRANCISCO (05/26/2000) - If you're unhappy with your browser but don't want to deal with a 17MB-plus Netscape Communicator or Internet Explorer download (which can take an hour or longer over a dial-up connection), consider a short visit to Opera Software AS. This capable browser from Norway is now in public beta for version 4. It arrives in a minuscule 1.55MB download and takes up a spartan 3MB of hard disk space. Yet it supports most major Web standards and in my informal tests loaded pages at least as quickly as Communicator or IE.
Version 4's improvements on the last 3.x release include addition of an e-mail client to support multiple accounts (though juggling them can be a bit tricky) and a new full-screen view that lets you see Web pages without the browser interface (pressing Alt-F11 to return to the usual window isn't intuitive, however).
Opera has long supported Multiple Document Interface (the ability to display multiple document windows within the main program window); in Opera 4, a Windows taskbar look-alike lets you switch between pages by clicking a button.
Other new features: a print preview button and improved standards support that should help Opera work better with a wider array of Web pages and (going forward) even with handheld devices. Opera is available on multiple platforms besides Windows--Linux, Macintosh (still in development), BeOS, and EPOC, the operating system used by Psion handhelds, which come with Opera bundled.
The drawbacks: Opera 4 supports but doesn't ship with Java. You can only add the program via a free plug-in from Sun (java.sun.com/products/plugin). And Opera isn't free: After a 30-day evaluation period, you have to pay $39 ($15 if you're an upgrader) to keep it. Given that the competition is free, price may prove the most formidable barrier to widespread acceptance of Opera 4.
Opera 4 (beta)
Pro: Small-footprint browser loads pages swiftly.
Con: Java not included; competitors are free.
Value: Worthy alternative to big-name browsers for fast, efficient Web surfing if you don't mind paying the modest premium.
List price: $39 ($15 for upgraders)